Phil Masters is one of the stalwarts of British roleplaying. As a regular writer for Steve Jackson Game’s GURPS line his influence on the industry is felt all over the world. The recently released Hellboy RPG and re-released Discworld Roleplaying Game carry his name as an author. In this e-View we ask Phil about what writing the Discworld RPG with Terry Pratchett was like, about Hellboy and we’ll see some of his thoughts on d20 and his advice on would-be gaming industry authors. GameWyrd’s questions appear in strange blue and Phil’s answers are in typical black.
1) How much of a Hellboy fan were you before you found yourself writing the Hellboy RPG and Sourcebook?
To tell the truth, I was barely aware of the comic before I was offered that job. Steve Jackson Games brought be onto this project as a writer they evidently regard as reliable, and as someone with a track record of adaptation work, rather than as a fan of the comic. (For that matter, Hellboy maybe isn’t currently as big here in the UK as it is in the USA, and I’m a fairly casual comics reader.)
I enjoyed the comics once I started reading them, of course. Though it was fortunate that the Hellboy canon consists of a fairly short list of titles. I wouldn’t want to tackle some possible licenses from scratch that way.
2) Are you in the loop concerning possible Hellboy computer games and movies? If there is a movie then you’ll be one of the few RPG authors to have put together the game long before the movie came out. Do you think that’s an extra claim to fame or barely a noteworthy coincidence?
To answer your first question first – I’m not privy to any special information. An RPG writer/adapter doesn’t necessarily get especially close contact with the licenser, unless there’s something one specifically needs to know – and even then, the questions may have to be passed through the game publisher. It’s not that anyone’s unhelpful or unfriendly, it’s just the way the system has to work.
I’ve seen plenty of mentions of the movie, of course, and I believe that there’s a computer game coming, but I don’t know any more about them than the average fan.
And as to the RPG preceding the movie – well, that’ll be fortuitous, obviously, but from my point of view, it’s just sheer luck. And it’s unusual, but not unprecedented – after all, Iron Crown’s old Middle Earth Role Playing was out long before the three movies… (For that matter, Original Dungeons and Dragons appeared long before the film. But that may not be a subject many people want to dwell on.)
3) The first RPG cover illustration that people will find on your webpage is for GURPS Discworld is that just because the game’s recently been re-released and re-branded or because it stands out as one of your favourite projects?
Is it? Hmm, yes, I guess it is… That’s just down to me scattering nice and vaguely relevant pictures round my Web page, really. No conscious calculation involved. After all, the cover image shows the first edition of the book, not the recent, re-titled version.
But yes, it is a favourite project of mine. I’m an unapologetic Pratchett fan, and getting the chance to work on that book was a big kick (as well as shifting more copies than most of my projects). Plus, hey, that cover has Paul Kidby art on it. I’ve been lucky enough to have a number of good artists illustrate my stuff, but Paul is one to boast about.
4) What was working on Discworld along with Terry Pratchett like?
Fun and pleasant. But distant – I don’t have any big Me’n’Terry tales to tell. You’ll notice that the title page credit on that book has Terry as the setting creator, and me as the adapter. That means what it says. I took the world which Terry had developed over twenty-odd novels, boiled it down, added game stats, and reworked a huge number of Terry’s best jokes, then gave it back to him for approval. It was a collaboration, as the cover implies, but in one sense I was there as a translator. (Though being permitted to invent a few scenario plots set on the Discworld was a privilege in itself, I felt.)
Which said, Terry was friendly and helpful. I did get to contact him directly, which wasn’t something he was obliged to allow – as I said above, a licenser would be quite within his rights to tell the adapter to channel all his dumb questions through the publisher. There are horror stories in the RPG business about stroppy licensers, but I’ve been lucky enough to miss out on that.
And anyone who’s talked to Terry about the Discworld will tell you that he’s got some very clear ideas about it. Not so much in the sense of geography and history – he’ll talk about those nowadays, but they took several novels to evolve – as in the sense of the Discworld as a literary environment. Not that he’s difficult; on the contrary, what makes him a pleasure to deal with is that he knows what’s the right way to do things with the setting, and can communicate it very clearly.
5) How does doing work for Steve Jackson Games compare to the sort of working practises and demands of something like Last Province? (Given that we except Steve Jackson Games is still going and the Last Province isn’t.)
Mostly, writing work is writing work. That is, publishers have specifications which define how they want things presented, and editors have more or less clear ideas what they want, and the trick is to write what they want the way they want it.
I’m not sure how meaningful it is to compare The Last Province (and gods, there’s a fondly remembered name from the past) with Steve Jackson Games. The one was a semi-pro magazine to whom I sent articles on spec (on paper, through the post, because that was then); the latter is a professional publisher for whom I’m writing whole books, after either I’ve pitched them a proposal or they’ve come to me with a requirement (and we can all work with e-mail these days). It’s a bigger, inevitably more complex business. I guess that writing the odd article for Pyramid doesn’t feel that different to writing for something like The Last Province, though.
I suppose you could compare writing for semi-pro magazines and writing for professional publishers, and note that the latter tend to be a bit more formal and maybe a bit more demanding. They pay more, so they can afford to say that people must do it their way. (And I don’t think that it’s any secret in the hobby that Steve Jackson Games have very clear and fairly strong ideas about how things should be presented, and ignoring those too often is a great way not to get to work for them.)
But it would be unfair to imply that, say, Steve Jackson Games is still going, and The Last Province isn’t, purely because the former sets higher standards for its writers. Both want or wanted good games material, with correct spelling, in a state which their editors could read. It wouldn’t be impossible for a company to get good work out of slightly sloppy writers, if they had patient and hard-working editors – but they’ll quickly develop a huge bias in favour of smarter work. The difference between survival and disappearance for companies tends to involve long and complicated stories, not just writing formats.
6) What are your opinions on a possible GURPS 4th Edition? Is it a good idea? Should any new GURPS edition be backwards compatible with previous editions?
Is it a good idea? In my purely personal opinion, as a regular GURPS player, yes it is. GURPS is a good system, but it has bits and pieces which need tidying up, and some past mistakes which have become embedded in the canon. It could use a polish.
“Backward compatibility” is a slippery concept. Obviously, if the new book had to be 100% compatible with everything ever published for the game in the past, you couldn’t change anything at all. On the other hand, GURPS is a proven system with some excellent past sourcebooks. I don’t think that anyone should invalidate all that history, or change stuff for the sake of it.
Anyway, if this idea does happen, there are some very smart and capable people set to be involved. I’m very optimistic.
7) What do you think the long-term heath of the hobby is? What do you make of the rise of all these small companies that cater to the d20 system?
One: The RPG hobby is never going to get huge. It’s just not possible for “role-playing games”, as 90% of people reading this would define them, to find a mass market. We’ve tried in the past, but we have a minority taste here. Sorry to anyone who likes to dream otherwise.
Two: There will probably continue to be products and ideas which spin off from RPGs and make people rich. You can find all sorts of features and images within RPGs which do have serious mass-market appeal. In the past, the RPG hobby has directly or indirectly given birth to Fighting Fantasy game books, a certain fantasy wargame, two or three different styles of computer game, CCGs, and most recently, ready- painted skirmish wargames figures with clicky things in their bases. All, in one sense or another, take the instantly appealing bits of RPGs, and drop the difficult stuff. And they’ve all made some ex-RPG’ers rich.
This tells me that RPGs have a particular role, and a particular appeal. They’re the place people come who find certain ideas compelling, and who want to work them out in full, with few restrictions, and in depth.
This in turn tells me that it’d be very hard for RPGs to die entirely. We can, as an industry, be hurt, maybe badly – there are so many other potential calls on the time of imaginative folk who like Lovecraft or Tolkien or Rice or Gibson or the idea of smacking hordes of goblins with tupping great axes, and who want the imaginative involvement thing. If Hasbro did something silly with their properties (and I haven’t the faintest idea about the thought processes of Hasbro senior management, for good or ill), that could really sting. But we have a hobby here which could actually be supported just by two or three hundred part-time fanatics with DTP programs in their spare rooms. We’ll have ups and downs, but RPGs will survive.
(And don’t ask me for details of the ups or the downs. My crystal ball proved defective years ago.)
Mention of Hasbro brings me onto Three: The d20 question. To start with the easy bit, yes, this has been good news for lots of small-to-medium companies. (In fact, what WotC have done is cunningly reinvent the situation which existed back around, oh, 1979, when D&D enjoyed its first great growth spurt, and we all got ideas from Judges’ Guild books and White Dwarf, and had barely heard of copyright.) But any big market opportunity is always in danger of being over-exploited, and to my untrained outsider’s eye, the d20 market looks like it may be approaching saturation. Eventually, there’ll be more books than people can buy, and maybe many of the d20 fans will realise that not everything they’ve been buying is actually good.
At which point, there may be a shakeout. This would hurt some people. I think – I hope – that the smart companies will survive, but these things can be very tricky. And I can’t assume that the shakeout will come soon, though I think it might. But I’m a lousy marketeer, so who knows?
As to the side-effects of the d20 phenomenon – well, it’s to some extent helped support other, more original work. That’s not necessarily good business, but like I said above, the RPG hobby attracts people for whom its central ideas are compelling – not people who feel compelled to get rich. And if d20 work has also distracted some people from that other work for a while, that may just be a price worth paying.
8) Do you have any future projects of your own lined up?
Yes, but not much I can talk about right now. There’s possible project for Steve Jackson Games, and one or two firm contracts with other companies which I hope will lead to announcements shortly.
(My next book due is called “Personnel Files”, and is a short work forming part of Steve Jackson Games’ wonderful Transhuman Space line. Due in November. Buy one for your cat.)
9) Which RPGs do you think you’ll still be playing in 5 years time?
Who knows for sure?
I suspect I’ll still be playing a lot of GURPS, because I’ve become rather heavily entangled with that line, both as a writer and as a gamer. I’ll also probably get drawn into the odd D&D game, of one sort or another. Beyond that, I’m not guessing.
10) Is there a key piece of advice you’d offer to a writer trying to break into the industry? If so, what is it?
(1) Read the publishers’ requirements and specifications. (2) Follow them. (3) Use a spell-checker, then double-check by eye, then triple-check.
I know it’s boring, but you have a lot of competition in this field, and publishers see a lot of submissions and proposals. If they see something which ignores the rules which they have handed down, or which shows a contempt for basic spelling or grammar, they will be sore tempted not to read on.
If you’ve got good ideas and a bit of talent, this will let them shine through. If you haven’t, there’s not a lot I can do for you in three paragraphs.
(GameWyrd notes – We’re in the Out of the Box section now. A couple of unusual questions for which we expect unusual answers!)
11) Imagine a strangely accented man with oddly coloured eyes thrust a battered and torn scroll at you, explained that it was of utmost importance that you read the words of the scroll from the top of the nearby hill during tomorrow’s dawn and then he then ran off before you could ask him anything else. Would you read the scroll on the hill at dawn?
Almost certainly not. Sorry to sound boring, but I have this rather detached view of fantasy, and I try to keep it distinct from reality. This sounds like either a loony or a practical joke, doesn’t it?
I’d browse through the scroll, of course. I’d be curious to try and decide which of the two options I was dealing with.
Anyway, it’s cold on the hilltops round here at dawn.
12) You’ve been given a suitcase full of small white d6. The challenge is to use them in such a way that gets you into the news – the more coverage the better – what do you try first?
If my life depended on it, I suppose that running across a major sports ground at half time (or something comparable), scattering them behind me, might be the best bet. (Throwing them at some annoying major celebrity during a public appearance might be even better, but could lead to painful or fatal consequences these days.)
If I wanted to do it with some style, I guess that trying to create some kind of artwork might be effective. A d6 mosaic? Some kind of installation art? Hmm – I don’t have the contacts to make that work, though.
Otherwise, though, I think I might just get in touch with one or two working journalist gamers I know, explain the situation, and see where that led me. Never be afraid to use contacts or professional expertise.